A direct descendant of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, civil rights leader Kenneth Morris sent a strong message, loud and clear, that slavery is still unfortunately very much alive today as he spoke to the crowd gathered at Bel Air Events Thursday night as part of the Ivy Tech Kokomo Region’s annual “Doing the Dream” program.
Morris, the great-great-great grandson of Douglass as well as the great-great grandson of renowned educator and author Booker T. Washington, brought the issue that his ancestors built a life fighting against to the forefront of the present day as he passionately relayed the horrors of human trafficking that are closer to home than we might think.
“I thought that slavery had ended,” Morris said during Thursday’s community banquet, which was the culmination of Ivy Tech’s “Doing the Dream 2019,” the 15th annual event hosted by the college in honor of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
He then relayed a story he read in 2005 about a 12-year old girl subjected to sex trafficking horrors every day. He said as he read the article he could hear his two daughters, who were 12 and nine at the time, getting ready for bed down the hall.
That sparked a fire in Morris. Today, he is the co-founder of Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, a non-profit organization based in Atlanta.
“What we do, which is what I call our day job, is human trafficking prevention, education, curriculum and training of educators in schools,” Morris said earlier this week.
According to the organization, it’s estimated that more than 20 million people live in a state of servitude today as women are forced into prostitution, children work in factories for little or no wage and men are being sold or traded like cattle. The FDFI was started in the hopes of helping those people to live free.
Earlier Thursday, Morris spoke to a convocation of students and adults at the Kokomo Event and Career Center as part of what was initially scheduled for a three-day series of events for this year’s “Doing the Dream” program.
Morris was set to speak at three area high schools earlier in the week, Peru on Tuesday and Kokomo and Logansport on Wednesday, but all those engagements were canceled due to frigid temperatures forcing the closure of schools around the area those days.
Morris updates the message of slavery to the present day issues of human trafficking when he speaks at school functions and banquets. His unique genealogy allows an easier transition into the often difficult subject with students in schools.
“Because of our unique connection to history it helps the work that we do,” Morris said. “And what I mean by that is when you’re approaching school districts and say I want to talk to students about sex trafficking and labor trafficking, most organizations give you a hand in the face, they say this is too sensitive of a subject.”
Morris instead starts with the history of slavery as most people are familiar with in the country, then draws in present day issues.
“It helps students and teachers along with parents and administrators, to soften some of the edges of these very prickly subjects,” Morris said. “So what we’ve always done is talk about the history first and then we ask the students to look through that prism of history to a contemporary human rights issue, in this case slavery, but there are so many other social justice issues that overlap with human trafficking.”
The question Morris said he then usually gets from students is what to do with the knowledge once they are armed with it. So Morris and his counterparts developed a formula called history, human rights and the power of one.
“Power is the activism, social service, civic engagement, peace,” Morris said. “So on one end of the spectrum children are the most vulnerable to being exploited but at the other end of the spectrum they can be most empowered to effect change on this issue that is greater than they are.”
Morris actually spent the early years of his life shying away from his roots. He grew up spending summers in Douglass’ Chesapeake Bay beach house, listening to his great-grandmother’s stories of the “man with the great big white hair.” He remembers being five or six years old and realizing that his ancestors were on stamps and money and had schools named for them.
“So I started to feel that weight of expectation from a young age, and I had seen as I was growing up what it had done to those who had come before me. There was a lot of pressure placed on my grandfather Frederick Douglass III with the namesake. That pressure was a lot to carry around. So I spent most of my life really running away from this lineage.”
He likened that to a story he told Thursday night of how he would try to duck past a larger-than-life portrait of Douglass that hung in that beach house. But every time, he told the crowd, the eyes of Douglass would follows him as he tried to sneak past the gaze.
But all of that changed with a National Geographic cover story he read in 2005. The headline was 21st century slaves and it was about human trafficking and modern day slavery.
“And that’s when my life just completely changed and I really began to embrace the incredible lineage I have.”
Today, Morris said he gets his greatest joy in seeing students empowered, and FDFI is trying to push that forward with its One Million Abolitionists project.
In honor of the 200th anniversary of Douglass’ birthday as well as an effort to bring about a new generation of abolitionists, the One Million Abolitionists project seeks to empower and inspire one million young people to do and be more than they ever dreamed possible with the goal of printing and distributing one million hardcover copies of a special bicentennial edition of “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave”, Douglass’ first autobiography which was originally published in 1845.
“I’ve known in my heart and soul how this book changes lives,” Morris said. “It’s a classic piece of literature that everyone needs to read at some point in their life. We wanted to make it accessible to young people.”
Morris said if there is one thing he hopes young people and adults alike get from his narrative, it is the idea that greatness lives in all of us.
“That’s what I want people to take away,” Morris said. “I want people to be inspired that even though we’re living at a time where we’re divided and we’re not having conversations that need to be had and racism has reared its ugly head again, which it has always existed in this country, that we know we have more in common than we have differences and we can all feel empowered. We have an obligation to our ancestors to do better.”
He ended the night Thursday sharing a powerful story of visiting the Frederick Douglass national historic site, going on several field trips to the house and visiting Douglass’ bedroom, where he would see his shirt and hat and shoes.
“I always wanted to try those shoes on,” Morris said.
In 2007, when he gave a speech at the site, he was part of a group picture that lined him up right next to those very shoes. He thought about it, but didn’t step into them.
“I never tried those shoes on, because I knew they would never fit. But what I realized at that moment was that I could take the shoes I have, you could all take the shoes you’ve got, and we could lead the way to a better tomorrow in our own shoes.”